Much as we like to think of ourselves as an evolved species, we’re not immune to the occasional door-slamming shouting match with our partner. So how do you avoid an icy stalemate for any longer than you have to? There are quite a few ways to expedite the process and get over a fight with your partner sooner rather than later.
“A piece of why there’s so much fighting is we’re not good at holding two realities or points of view,” says Nancy Dreyfus, Psy.D., a Pennsylvania-based psychotherapist and author of Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in a Flash. So when your two separate opinions, processes, or ideas of common sense butt heads and something goes sideways, you both end up defending your own point of view. “So often what we’re upset about, when we’re having a fight, is we simply want someone to enter our reality.”
And when they don’t? “Our brains actually respond to relational trauma almost the same way—if not the same way—that they do to physical trauma,” explains Gina Senarighi, Ph.D, a Portland-based relationship coach, author of Love More Fight Less: A Communication Workbook for Every Couple, and host of the podcast Swoon. “Our brains and our bodies are wired for connection, and those shame, rejection, and abandonment triggers are tender points.”
Which is why, she says, when your partner uses a certain tone or makes a particular comment, it feels the same in your body as when a car is coming at you out of nowhere at 60 mph. And that fight or flight “Mayday!” reaction rushes in with a jolt.
And so here you are. The fight bell has been rung. Here’s how to get tactical—fast.
Fastest Ways to Get Over a Fight With Your Partner
1. Diffuse the flame
Just as it’s better to move your burger away from the flame when you get a flare up, you can lower the temperature of an argument before it grows out of control, too. “One of the quickest ways to diffuse an upset is simply to say, “This doesn’t feel good. Let’s stop for a second. I really want to hear you,” says Dreyfus. Or, she says, “try another piece of quick first aid and say, ‘I can see why you’re upset.’ ” What you’re doing is pattern interruption, she says. “It doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with them, but it’s sending the message you want to enter their reality.”
2. Come up with a safe word
Or, take a break from the fight entirely. Most of us usually push through in the middle of a fight, thinking, “I’m not in danger. Why wouldn’t I keep talking to them?’ ” Well, because when your body has that jolt of electricity going through it, “your brain is being hijacked by chemicals. Chemicals that are best suited to run into a fire and save someone, not best suited for collaborative decision-making and compassionate problem-solving.” This is how you end up getting defensive—and getting nowhere.
Pushing through is pointless “if one of your nervous systems is in overdrive,” she says. “You cannot proceed until that person’s physiological system is back to stasis.”
The solution? “Have a safe word,” says Senarighi. “I have one couple who says, ‘Yellow flag! Yellow flag!’ That’s their signal for taking a break.” Then say, “Let’s pick this up at a better time”—say, after dinner or on Sunday over breakfast—and follow through on it. You have to be accountable to come back to it.
3. Take a shower
You know what doesn’t help after a fight? Muttering while you load the dishwasher really loudly so your anger is clear. But there’s a reason you want to do that. After your brain is hijacked by conflict, “the brain won’t come back online for most people for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes or longer,” says Senarighi. Do what it takes to turn off the kettle and simmer down, for the benefit of both of you.
“Take some deep breaths, get a little fresh air, take a shower, stretch your body, call a friend, call your therapist, play video games,” she says. “Do something that’s going to help you lower your heart rate, clear your head, and move in the direction of calm.”
But what if you can’t go your separate ways?
4. Call a temporary truce
Sometimes fights happen on the way to a party or a kid’s dance recital, when you can’t go your separate ways to calm down. Rather than taint the entire event—and probably make everyone around you feel uncomfortable—call a temporary truce. “Accept where you are rather than working so hard to try to get someplace else,” says Dreyfus. Like, “I know you’re still not adoring me, but can we call a truce for now and come back to it later?” You can also call a truce if you know you’re both spinning your wheels and you’d be better off just shutting up and watching an episode of Ted Lasso together.
You don’t even have to say the words, “I’m sorry.” You just have to take responsibility for something. As in: “I should have called,” “I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way,” or “I should have consulted you first.” Or, as Dreyfus recommends again, “It makes sense that you were upset with me.”
But what if you’re thinking, Me? Sorry? For what?! I didn’t do anything! Well, think harder. “Everybody does something wrong,” says Senarighi. “It might be that it’s 99 percent your partner’s fault,” she says, but it doesn’t matter. “Apologize for your 1 percent. What could you have done differently that would’ve changed the dynamic one tiny bit? Then name it.” Maybe, she says, it’s, “I brought it up at a bad time for you.” “I didn’t clear my head after I sat in traffic for two hours on the way home from work and I was agitated from the get-go.” Or, “I told you I was listening when I wasn’t actually able to be a good listener yet.” Name a specific thing, says Senarighi. “Because the sooner one of you takes accountability for something, the sooner you’re going to move toward repair.”
6. Don’t try to explain yourself
If you did mess up somehow, don’t—for the love of all that is good—try to explain yourself too quickly. “Avoid explaining or justifying your behavior until you’ve got some opening and softness with your partner, when you feel like they’re ready to hear it,” says Senarighi. Because the ol’ “Well I thought you weren’t coming so that’s why I left!” or “I only did this because you always do that!” bit is going to make your partner feel blamed and shut down.
Wait for the right time to express your feelings and point of view. Just make sure you’re getting to the roof of your issues—not theirs. So not: “Well, what the hell were you doing talking so long with your ex?” But more like: “Look, when I heard you ran into your ex, I felt like a stupid high schooler and got jealous. I couldn’t help it.”
7. Propose a do-over
“One of the most underutilized interventions is the do-over,” says Dreyfus. “To be able to say, ‘You know what? I didn’t like how I sounded right now. Can I do that again?’
When people see some good will, they’re willing to acquiesce.
8. Write a peace offering
Apologizing out loud—even when you’re in the wrong—can be a painstaking endeavor. If that’s the case for you, try writing out your feelings instead. “I love written notes because you can do drafts,” says Senarighi. “If you fire off texts, sometimes you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you’re still too angry.” Just keep the note short and sweet and follow Senarighi’s guide: Center it on the other person, validate their experience, empathize with their feelings, and acknowledge your own behavior.
It’s “a little bit like a white flag,” adds Dreyfus. “We are so sensitive to each other’s tone of voice that we can hear the purity of the message not tainted by lingering ambivalence.” Before you hand it to them, read it through their eyes. How would you feel to receive it?
9. Touch a little
Think small, sweet gestures: a hand squeeze, a hug, a hand on the shoulder. Initiate contact that connects you physically, to get you on the path to connecting again emotionally. “When we feel touch or physical closeness with our partners, our heart beats will even sync up; we co-regulate,” says Senarighi.
Something of note: “Some men only touch their partners when they want to have sex. Touch works better if you’re touching on a regular basis in non-sexual but affectionate ways.”
10. Skip the roses—pick up something meaningful
While you’ve stepped away from one another, get her a small symbol that you care. Sour Patch Kids if she loves those. Her favorite pressed juice. That bag of Takis chips. A small gesture that speaks to who she is, specifically, is more meaningful than a big, empty one. A big caveat here: “I see a lot of people only do sweet things because they feel ashamed they hurt their partner in a conflict? says Senarigh.
You should be doing kind things all the time. And if you’re not sure what to do for her, “Ask your partner once a week, ‘What can I do to make your week easier?’ Or ‘How can I show you I love you?’ And start collecting that stuff for fodder.
11. Plot a better path
State what you plan to do differently moving forward. Maybe you’ll be more open with how you feel, less road-ragey when you’re driving, and text if you’re running late. And if you must? Secretly set an alert on your iCal to help with household chores and encourage her to use Waze on the next car ride. “We want our partner to make the change because they’re seeing the impact on us, not because we’ve made them sign something.”
12. Make-up sex
Make-up sex is best served once your brains have cooled off and your hearts have warmed up. Once you’ve rollicked through the sheets and completely made up, you’re probably swearing you’ll never fight like that again. And there is a way to avoid it.
“Most couples have less intense fights if they keep track of repairs in relationships that are tiny,” says Senarighi. “Do repair work from ruptures almost every day. Things like: “Hey, sorry if I was short, I was stressed that I was running late.” Or, “Sorry if I cut you off this morning, I was focused on that work call.”
Frequent repairs—where one of you is owning the possibility that you caused harm for your partner—are what keep the resentments from piling up and make big, fiery fights harder to spark in the first place.
Amy Spencer is a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Meeting Your Half-Orange: An Utterly Upbeat Guide to Using Dating Optimism to Find Your Perfect Match and Bright Side Up.